On Open Letter to Zygotes

by F.

I sometimes wish that, in the womb, I was given a head’s up about what was to come. Not just the spanking thing, having to wear the diaper (at both the beginning and end of life), and mortality. No, I mean the four big—to me at least—surprises of human life:

  1. Hysteresis
  2. Path dependency
  3. Predicting the future
  4. Half-assedness

Hysteresis means that the “value of a physical property lags behind changes in the effect causing it, as for instance when magnetic induction lags behind the magnetizing force.” That’s physics, but the idea applies to almost all domains (economics especially). This is constantly surprising, I think, like when you eat less food and don’t lose weight the next day. Huh? But I dieted! Or you exercise and don’t get stronger the next day. Whuh? The plus side of hysteresis comes when you do something bad, expecting Nemesis, but she stays away, at least for a little while (and sometimes forever).

Path dependency means that “history matters.” A corollary is that, often, “you can’t get there from here.” I can never be a pro Basketball player. This is obvious, but what trips me up is when I forget about the other ways in which my life is path dependent. Worse, there’s no good way to figure out what is a true path dependency and what is an illusory one. (More can be found here.)

Predicting the future is really the only game in town. Unfortunately, we suck at it. The upside is that surprises are fun. Unless they’re not (e.g., getting eaten by a tiger. Surprise!)

Half-Assedness refers to the manifest fact that most human (and other animal) efforts are half-assed. Usually, there’s no incentive to give full-ass effort. Whether it’s at work, at home, or with hobbies, it’s so much easier to just do a half-assed job. Often, perhaps a majority of the time, this is enough. But sometimes you forget this and expect people to do a full-assed job. The iPod is full-assed, though, and each time I look at mine, it gives me hope…until I hear the word “Zune.”